Hero to Zero

Matteo Renzi, according to recent opinion polls, is currently the country’s most unpopular politician. And this being Italy, we can safely assume there is a pretty long list to choose from. That said, there is no suggestion that he’s responsible for caging immigrant children, no evidence that he has voiced support for white supremacists, no indication that he has recommended drinking bleach as a sure-fire cure for Covid-19, and no accusation of promoting demonstrably baseless conspiracy theories involving long dead Venezuelan dictators in an attempt to overthrow a free and fair election. Which I suppose is something. No, in Renzi’s case, it is a much more common or garden type of political recklessness, laced, it seems, with a heavy dose of ego-driven grandstanding. Last week he pulled his tiny (and otherwise inconsequential) Italia Viva party out of the country’s fragile but reasonably competent coalition, thereby depriving it of its wafer-thin majority and so threatening to bring down the whole government – in the midst of the worst global pandemic in a century and the worst economic crisis since World War II. Well-played, Matteo.

How things have changed for the charismatic former leader of the centre-left Democratic Party (Partito Demcratico – PD). In 2014 the then thirty-nine-year-old Renzi became Italy’s youngest ever Prime Minister, with grand ambitions of reinventing the country’s outdated political and administrative machine. And to be fair, his centrist government, which for the first (and only) time briefly included equal numbers of male and female ministers, did succeed in enacting a programme of wide-ranging reforms that, inter alia, freed up the labour market, sought to streamline public administration and simplify civil trials, abolished a raft of sundry taxes and achieved recognition of same-sex civil unions. The radical policies of his youthful government (with an average age of just forty-seven years) seemed to mark the a real ‘changing of the guard’ at the Chigi Palace, and at the start of his two years in the political sunshine the cherub-faced Renzi was far and away Italy’s most popular politician.

His nemesis, however, was his flagship constitutional reform aimed at restricting the powers (and the inherently conservative bias) of Italy’s upper chamber, the Senate. This was coupled with an overhaul of the country’s strictly proportional voting system, the purpose of which was at least to slow the revolving door that saw Italian governments coming and going on an almost yearly basis by giving a stabilising super-majority to the winning party and so preventing minor parties from holding the balance of power. Although both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate voted in favour of Renzi’s proposals, they did not achieve the two-thirds majority required for constitutional reforms, triggering a national referendum and giving the electorate the final say on the matter. As an early example of his hubristic tendencies, Renzi confidently declared that if he lost the referendum on 4th December 2016, he would resign as PM and leave politics – only for the Italian electorate, who turned out in far greater numbers than any previous constitutional referendum, to reject his proposals by sixty to forty percent. Renzi had no choice but to tender his resignation just days after the vote.

He didn’t leave politics, though. Indeed, in 2017 he was re-elected as secretary of the PD, but resigned again in March 2018, following his party’s miserable showing in that year’s inconclusive general election that left it in third place and in opposition to the fractious coalition cobbled together between the right-wing La Lega and left-leaning Five Star Movement (Movimento Cinque Stelle – M5S). But when this collapsed in September 2019, Renzi saw an opportunity to return to government and persuaded his party under its hugely popular new leader Nicola Zingaretti to enter into coalition with its hitherto bitterest foe, the M5S – and neutralise La Lega in the process. Then, only days after the new government was sworn in, Renzi announced his intention to leave the PD and form a new centrist party called Italia Viva (taking with him a handful of Deputies and Senators as well as two Ministers) in what was widely condemned as little more than an act of political narcissism.

Although he initially confirmed his support for the coalition, Renzi soon became a noisy and persistent thorn in the side of Prime Minister Conte over his administration’s handling of the pandemic and the ensuing economic turmoil. He repeatedly threatened to pull his party out of the fragile coalition if he didn’t get his own way over spending plans for the €220 billion in post-Covid stimulus funding from the EU and insisting that the country should also sign up for the EU’s bailout fund, even though the ruling M5S had repeatedly rejected this over fears it would risk subjecting the country to the EU’s strict austerity rules. And thus shamelessly indulged in precisely the type of de-stabilising brinkmanship his very own failed constitutional reforms had been intended to avoid.

Even though the Cabinet did eventually accommodate his spending proposals, Renzi’s other demands remained unmet, so he lobbed his toys out of the pram and his party out of government in another fit of characteristically hubristic pique. For what Renzi had failed to consider was that a) his own party enjoys only a meagre 3% support, b) over 70% of Italians believe he is simply pursuing his own political interests, and are opposed to political upheaval in such a critical period, and c) Conte still enjoys solid support in the polls. He also failed to appreciate that d) Conte also still enjoys the support the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, winning the votes of confidence in both houses his resignation triggered. And e) that his latest piece of grandstanding would consequently leave him out in the political cold since, despite magnanimously indicating he might be prepared to return to the coalition fold if his demands were met, M5S and the PD have both refused to work with him again, preferring instead to carry on as a minority government.

What’s that they say about those who do not learn the lessons of history being condemned to repeat them?

Photo credit: Roberto Monaldo/LaPresse

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